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'Imagine being 18 and being signed by De La Hoya': Irish star McKenna set to rock Vegas on debut tonight

The 18-year-old from Monaghan fights Travis Conley in Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino.

WHERE SO MANY of his peers dream of a career which might one day culminate in a major fight across the Atlantic, Monaghan’s Aaron McKenna is more than happy to reverse the conventional order.

The 18-year-old light-welterweight, a product of Old School Boxing Club in Smithborough, will make his professional boxing debut at the prestigious Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas tonight, but the prodigiously talented puncher would like to play prodigal son in due course should his career path afford him the opportunity.

For now, however, McKenna is more than content to earn his stripes on America’s west coast.

The eight-time Irish champion landed a deal with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions in September, in doing so becoming the youngest fighter on their prosperous roster as well as Ireland’s youngest pro boxer.

He’s already earned the nickname ‘The Silencer’ due to his being naturally introverted on the safe side of the ropes while bearing all the hallmarks of a man with the capacity to kill once he steps through them.

His transition to the paid ranks, though, has evoked plenty of noise on either side of the pond, and there won’t be much quiet to be found in Smithborough during the wee hours of Sunday morning when McKenna takes to the ring for the first time as a professional – a fight which will be broadcast live on Ringtvlive.com at 23:45 Irish time.

“They’re really excited, really looking forward to the debut,” McKenna tells The42 from his Los Angeles base. “They can’t wait, and neither can I.

“It’s enormous, being so young – especially being the youngest Golden Boy fighter as well as the youngest professional boxer from Ireland. It’s just unbelievable.

It’s unbelievable. Can you imagine being 18 and being signed by Oscar De La Hoya and Golden Boy Promotions? And boxing out here in America, the land of opportunity.

“It’s the boxing capital of the world out here in LA, and I’m going to fighting in big places – New York, Las Vegas, Boston, LA – it’s unbelievable.”


In spite of his insistence to the contrary, McKenna – for all his shyness – evinces the sense that he unequivocally believes he’s worthy of the hype which has followed his signing on De La Hoya’s dotted line.

A miserly nine defeats in 161 amateur bouts around the world render his conviction justified, as do his European Schoolboys gold medal and a European Junior silver atop his eight Irish titles. As recently as March of this year, too, he won gold at the highly esteemed Nikolay Pavlyukov Memorial in Russia – a tournament often referred to as the ‘mini World Championships’.

He exhibits no pretences nor prima donna tendencies, however. Take last weekend, for example, when McKenna was originally scheduled to make his dream professional bow at Madison Square Garden, New York, only for the scrap to fall through come fight day.

Indeed, so late was proposed opponent Victor Eddy Gaytan’s withdrawal due to licensing issues, there wasn’t even sufficient time to draft in a replacement opponent, and so McKenna was pulled from the Miguel Cotto-headlined bill altogether.

Many would have sulked. Most would have scoffed down the greasiest food imaginable, or perhaps hit the pub, or both. McKenna had a better idea.

“When I heard the news I just went over to Gleason’s Gym with my brother, Steven [Irish Senior Elite champion], and we had a spar,” recalls McKenna.

“Of course I was disappointed, but I get the sense that I’ll box there [MSG] again, and in bigger places again, so…not too bad.

“Listen, it’s early days.

“I love it out here, really, though. It’s class. It’s one of the best places to be if you’re trying to make it as a big-name boxer. I have a beach where I do my runs, and the Santa Monica track then as well right beside me; all of the great gyms like Wild Card, Maywood and Iron.

“It’s a great place to learn.”

image3 (1) Aaron McKenna's Madison Square Garden debut last Saturday was cancelled at the eleventh hour.

Of course, at McKenna’s age, there remains plenty to learn both inside and outside of the ring, and his decision to turn professional so young will beg questions from many sceptics, particularly considering he was touted as a major medal hope for Tokyo 2020.

His reasons for doing so, though, speak to an almost jarring maturity, disguised perhaps by his boyish aesthetics.

McKenna hasn’t ditched his amateur vest for headlines nor cash nor flashy cars, and his elder compatriots (the likes of Jamie Conlan and McKenna’s Golden Boy stablemate Jason Quigley have each spoken to The42 about this in recent weeks) can rest easy in the knowledge that he hasn’t done so ‘for the Gram’, either.

Instead, he has left amateur boxing in his rear-view for what he maintains to be pragmatic reasons.

“Well, the amateur game is getting a lot like the professional game now, where there’s no head guards and that,” says McKenna. “You’re a lot more likely to get a cut in the amateurs now, because you’re fighting every day.

“In three years’ time, by the time the Olympics come, I’ll have about 15 professional fights and a lot of experience. So I felt it would be better to go pro.

You mightn’t even make it to the Olympics, either. Like, you could get a cut or anything – God only knows – and the Olympics is gone.

“Longer rounds suit me as well: I’ve a better engine for the pro game. I’m as fit as a fiddle, and I could go eight, 10, 12 rounds not a bother to me.

“It’s nothing about money. I just think my style is far more suited to the pro game, and I think I’ll do great in the professional ranks. I think I’ll become world champion.

“I think I have man strength already. I’m used to sparring people older than me anyway – I’m used to sparring pros. I’m well used to the whole professional thing.”

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25086673_10212719735920818_531784838_o Aaron McKenna awaits his flight to Vegas alongside his father, Feargal McKenna (left) and trainer, Courage Tshabalala (right)

Extremely tall at his weight at six-foot-one, McKenna’s core approach – stalking and aggressive – is largely the same as that which separated him from the crowd when he was a child: at one juncture, half a life ago, he recorded 19 stoppages in 20 fights.

He was 16 when he first traversed the Atlantic to train while mulling over an extremely early turnover to the pros, and even then there were reports that he was thumping the heads off older fellas in some of the west coast’s most unforgiving bullpens.

The transition to professional boxing, then, should be seamless, and in order to smooth his permanent relocation to the States, McKenna’s father, Fergal, has joined him on this venture.

He’s in fine hands, too, with a management team in Sheer Sports who also guide the career of his Golden Boy stablemate Jason Quigley, the up-and-coming Donegal middleweight star [13-0, 10KOs] from whom McKenna explains he’s already learned plenty.

He describes his first meeting with De La Hoya as “unreal”, labeling the six-weight world champion and boxing tycoon “a really nice fella.”

Thanks in no small part to The McGregor Effect, Irish professional boxers are now more in vogue than ever before, and having rightly detected such an upturn, the original ‘Golden Boy’ swayed McKenna in the direction of California, adding ‘The Silencer’ to a stable which already boasted his fellow former Irish amateur standout Quigley.

McKenna himself predicts that the next few years will see many an Irish-heavy fight bill hit America’s east coast on De La Hoya’s authority, and though he relishes the prospect, the Monaghan teenager can’t help but envisage a major outing closer to home somewhere down the line.

“Oscar’s in good hands with me and Jason,” he says. “We’ll get those fights in New York and Boston where there’s a lot of Irish, and build up a great Irish support.

I think I definitely will be fighting in Ireland in a couple of years. My dream would be to fight in Clones, in St Tiernach’s Park. That’d just be unbelievable.

Then, following a brief hesitation, we get the first taste of McKenna’s marketing nous.

“I’d have no bother fighting Conor McGregor either, by the way,” he laughs.


There remains plenty to learn from the UFC’s Notorious two-weight champion, of course: McKenna has begun to garner attention, albeit on a microcosmic scale, but despite having propelled himself into a world where he’s frequently confronted by cameras and hand-shakers – scarcely ideal for a self-professed quiet youngfella – he’s not overly fussed.

Indeed, during numerous chance encounters, he’s turned the tables on a couple of his more coveted fellow leather tradesmen.

“I’m just taking it in my stride. I’m getting a lot of publicity – I’m very busy – but I don’t really pay too much attention to any of it. I’m just focusing on my boxing.

“I’ve met a lot of people over here. I got pictures with Bernard Hopkins, Evander Holyfield and all them. It’s great.

“Everyone’s just telling me to work hard and I’ll get the rewards, so that’s what I’ll do.”

“All the suits from Madison Square Garden came down to meet Aaron last week,” adds Rachel Charles of Sheer Sports, who worked around the clock to ensure McKenna’s debut was postponed for merely a week.

“Jason was there as well, which was great – and they absolutely want Aaron to fight there at some point. Both of them, in fact. So fingers crossed for something pretty early in the new year. We’ll see.

We were at the press conference and the weigh-in, and people were coming up to meet Aaron while Miguel Cotto was sitting on the other side of the room! It was like, ‘all right, hey, Miguel – I’m just going over to meet this kid Aaron.’ Everyone was making a big fuss of Aaron, which is lovely.

It’s a trend which Charles hopes will continue long into the future, beginning tomorrow when McKenna finally laces up the gloves for the first time as a professional.

He faces American Travis Conley [1-0, 1KO] on the undercard of Orlando Salido-Miguel Roman in Las Vegas, and while he wasn’t remotely tempted to make a bullish prediction ahead his maiden bout, there’s a steeliness to the proclamation which follows.

24992552_10212722961401453_1507014712_n Aaron McKenna stares down Travis Conley after weighing in for his pro debut in Vegas Source: Maya Marquez

“All I’m looking for is just a good performance. I’m just looking to impress everyone.

“My ambition is to become a world champion in three years. 21 years old, champion of the world. That’s my ambition.”

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